Humanly Possible: Seven Hundred Years of Humanist Freethinking, Enquiry and Hope

by Sarah Bakewell

Rating: 7/10
Read: May 15th, 2023
Pages: 464
Year: 2023
ISBN: 1784741663

Highlights & Notes

Note: I highlight using an app and its OCRing isn’t always 100% accurate. If there’s any spelling or grammatical errors that’s likely why.

The scathing one now puts forward a different definition altogether. “It’s a philosophy that rejects supernaturalism, regards man as a natural object and asserts the essential dignity and worth of man and his capacity to achieve self-realisation through the use of reason and the scientific method.”

Hamza bin Walayat comes from Pakistan, but in 2017 he was living in the UK and applied for permission to remain, on the grounds that his humanist beliefs and his break with Islam had brought threats against his life in his home country, notably from his own family. He feared that, if deported, he could be killed. This was a reasonable fear; humanism is outlawed as blasphemy in Pakistan (as in several other countries) and can even be punished by execution. In practice, Pakistani humanists have been killed mostly by vigilante mobs, with the authorities looking away. A notorious case occurred in that same year, 2017: the student Mashal Khan, who posted on social media as “The Humanist,” was beaten to death by fellow students.

I take as my guide another great humanist line from E. M. Forster: “Only connect!”

This is the epigraph and recurring refrain of his 1910 novel Howards End, and Forster meant a range of things by it. He meant that we should look to the bonds that connect us, rather than to divisions; that we should try to appreciate other people’s angles on the world as well as our own; and that we should avoid the inward splintering of ourselves that is caused by self-deception or hypocrisy. I agree with all of this—and take it as encouragement to tell a story of humanism in a spirit of connection more than division.

We can start with the first possibility mentioned by the Thurmarshians: understanding human life non-supernaturally. Of all the views that came up in that meeting, this is the one with the oldest recorded pedigree. The first discussion of materialist views (that we know of) arose in India, as part of the Cārvāka school of thought founded by the thinker Bṛhaspati sometime before the sixth century BCE. This school’s followers believed that, when our bodies die, that is the end of us as well. The philosopher Ajita Kesakambalī was quoted as saying:

“This human being is composed of the four great elements, and when one dies the earth part reverts to earth, the water part to water, the fire part to fire, the air part to air, and the faculties pass away into space. . . . Fools and wise, at the breaking-up for the body, are destroyed and perish, they do not exist after death.”

A century or so later, a similar thought turns up in the coastal town of Abdera, in northeastern Greece, home of the philosopher Democritus. He taught that all entities in nature are made up of atoms—indivisible particles that combine in various ways to make all the objects we have ever touched or seen. And we are made of these particles, too, both mentally and physically. While we live, they combine together to form our thoughts and sensory experiences. When we die, they drift apart and go to form other things. That is the end of the thoughts and experiences—and therefore we end, too.

The atomic theory made Democritus so lighthearted that he was known as “the laughing philosopher”: freed from cosmic dread, he was able to chuckle at human foibles rather than weep over them as others did.

Democritus passed on his ideas to others. Among those to take them up was Epicurus, who founded a community of students and like-minded friends at his school in Athens, known as the “Garden.” Epicureans sought happiness mainly through enjoying their friendships, eating a modest diet of porridge-like gruel, and cultivating mental serenity. A key component of the latter, as Epicurus wrote in a letter, was avoiding “those false ideas about the gods and death which are the chief source of mental disturbances.”

The reason we do not know what came next in the book is that nothing beyond those few lines survives—and we have a good idea as to why. The biographer Diogenes Laertius tells us that, as soon as Protagoras’s work on the gods appeared, “the Athenians expelled him; and they burnt his works in the market-place, after sending round a herald to collect them from all who had copies in their possession.” Nothing directly written by Democritus survives, either, or by members of the Cārvāka school, and perhaps it is for similar reasons. From Epicurus we do have a few letters, but his teachings were also turned into verse form by a later Roman, Lucretius, in the long poem On the Nature of Things. That was almost lost, too, but a later copy survived in a monastery, where it was found in the fifteenth century by humanistic book collectors and circulated afresh. And so, after all these fragile moments and near losses, Democritan ideas did survive into our own era

The tradition lives on, too, in the words of a poster campaign of 2009 in the UK, supported by the British Humanist Association (now Humanists UK). The message, displayed on the sides of buses and in other places, was a Democritan statement of mental tranquility: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” The idea had come from Ariane Sherine, a young writer and comedian who wanted to provide an alternative, reassuring message after she saw buses carrying an advertisement from an evangelical religious organization whose website threatened sinners with eternal hellfire.

This switching of focus to the here and now remains one of the key principles of modern humanist organizations. It was even formulated as that most unhumanist-sounding thing, a “creed,” or statement of core beliefs. The author of this was Robert G. Ingersoll, a nineteenth-century American freethinker (or non-religious humanist). The creed goes like this:

Happiness is the only good.
The time to be happy is now.
The place to be happy is here.
And Ingersoll ends with the all-important final line:
The way to be happy is to make others so.

This principle of human interconnectivity was put into a neat phrase in a play by Publius Terentius Afer, known as Terence in English. The “Afer” refers to his origin, since he was born, probably as a slave, around 190 BCE in or near Carthage in North Africa; he then found fame in Rome as a writer of comedies. One of his characters says—and I include the Latin because it is still often quoted in the original:

Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.


I am human, and consider nothing human alien to me.

Actually, the line is a comic gag. The character who says it is known for being a nosy neighbor: this is how he replies when someone asks him why he cannot mind his own business. I am sure it got a good laugh, catching the audience off guard and mocking philosophical profundities. It tickles me, too, to think that a quotation cited seriously for so many centuries started life as a piece of knockabout comedy. Yet it does in fact do a good job of summing up an essential humanist belief: that we are all tied up in each other’s lives. We are sociable beings by nature, and we can all recognize something of ourselves in each other’s experiences, even those of people who seem very different from us.

Christianity also offered both options. Some early Christians were extremely humanistic: for them, praising humans was also a way of praising God, since He made us this way, after all. The fourth-century theologian Nemesius of Emesa sounds a lot like Manetti when he writes, of the human being, “Who could express the advantages of this living thing? He crosses the seas, in contemplation he enters into the heavens, he recognises the motions of the stars . . . he thinks nothing of wild beasts and sea-monsters, he controls every science, craft and procedure, he converses by writing with those with whom he wishes to do so beyond the horizon.” But a few years later, Nemesius’s influential fellow theologian Augustine of Hippo formulated the concept of original sin, which states that we are all born fundamentally wrong (thanks to Adam and Eve), and that even newborn babies start out in a flawed condition from which they had better spend their lives seeking redemption.

The purpose of this horrorfest is to shock us awake, so that we understand the need to transform ourselves. It should make us turn away from what Augustine had called the City of Man toward the City of God. What we take to be pleasures and achievements in this world are only vanities. “Do not look for satisfaction on earth, do not hope for anything from humanity,” wrote the mystic and mathematician Blaise Pascal much later. “Your good is only in God.” In lectures of 1901–1902, the philosopher William James analyzed how this two-step move in religion works: first we are made uneasy, feeling “that there is something wrong about us as we naturally stand.” Then religion provides the solution: “a sense that we are saved from the wrongness by making proper connection with the higher powers.”

It does not occur only in religion, however. Politics can do it, too. In the twentieth century, Fascists began by saying that something was badly wrong with current society, but that it could be fixed if all personal life was subordinated to the interests of the national State. Communist regimes, too, diagnosed errors in the preexisting capitalist system and proposed fixing them with a revolution. The new society might need, for a while, to be shored up by force, but it was worth it because it would lead the population toward an ideological promised land, a state of grace in which no more inequality or suffering would exist. Both systems were officially non-theistic, but only in that they replaced God with something similarly transcendent: the nationalist State, or Marxist theory, plus a cult of personality centered on the leader. They took away ordinary human freedoms and values and offered in return the chance to be raised up into some higher level of meaning or of “true” freedom. Whenever we see leaders or ideologies overruling the conscience, liberty, and reasoning of actual human beings with the promise of something higher, anti-humanism is probably in the ascendant.

I say this with caution, since humanists are rarely flag wavers by nature anyway. But if they did stitch words on a banner, those words might denote three principles in particular: Freethinking, Inquiry, and Hope. These take different forms, depending on what kind of humanist you are—inquiring will mean one thing to a scholar of the humanities and another to a campaigner for non-religious ethics—but they appear again and again in the many humanist stories we will encounter in the pages to come.

Freethinking: because humanists of many kinds prefer to guide their lives by their own moral conscience, or by evidence, or by their social or political responsibilities to others, rather than by dogmas justified solely by reference to authority.

Inquiry: because humanists believe in study and education, and try to practice critical reasoning, which they apply to sacred texts and to any other sources set up as being beyond question.

And Hope: because humanists feel that, failings notwithstanding, it is humanly possible for us to achieve worthwhile things during our brief existence on Earth, whether in literature or art or historical research, or in the furthering of scientific knowledge, or in improving the well-being of ourselves and other living beings.

If you had a choice, you probably would not want to be born on the Italian peninsula in the early fourteenth century. Life was insecure, with regular hostilities between cities and political groupings. A long-running conflict between the factions known as Guelfs and Ghibellines was resolved, only for the winning Guelfs to split into “White” and “Black” factions and start fighting each other instead. Rome, the historic center of Christendom, was abandoned by a beleaguered pope, Clement V; he fled his enemies and transferred the court to Avignon, an ill-prepared small city beyond the Alps with a terrible climate. The papacy would remain there for decades, leaving a chaotic Rome literally vegetating amid its overgrown ruins. Tuscany was stricken by bad weather and famine—and even worse afflictions were to come.

Yet somehow this anguished part of the world produced a surge of literary energy. Through the 1300s, new generations of writers appeared, filled with the spirit of recovery and revival. They hoped to reach back, past the current troubles, and even past the foundation of Christianity itself, so as to link hands with the writers of the Roman world, whose works had fallen into varying degrees of forgottenness. These new writers looked to an old model of good living, based on friendship, wisdom, virtue, and the cultivation of power and eloquence in language. From these elements, they created their own literature in a range of genres. Their weapon in all of this was the studia humanitatis: the human studies.

Signs of a revived interest in the human studies had already appeared in earlier decades, notably from the cosmic visionary Dante Alighieri—promoter of the Tuscan language and master of the art of taking literary revenge on his enemies by inventing a vivid Hell and putting them in it. The real beginning of the new beginning, however, came in the generation after his, with two writers who, like him, came from Tuscany: Francesco Petrarca (known as Petrarch in English) and Giovanni Boccaccio. They more or less invented the way of life that would be, for the next two centuries, the humanist one—not that they used this label of themselves. Only later did people regularly use the word umanisti; but Petrarch and Boccaccio put together the profile, so it seems reasonable to call them by that name.

To get there, each of them began with a similar step: rebelling against the means of living that their fathers had wanted for them. In Petrarch’s case it was the law; in Boccaccio’s, a choice between mercantile business or the church. Separately, they both chose a new path instead: the literary life. A youthful counterculture can take many forms: in the 1300s, it could mean reading a lot of Cicero and starting a book collection.

He was born in 1304 in Arezzo. His birthplace would have been Florence, but his parents were of the White faction when the Black Guelfs took over in the city. They had to flee, amid a group of refugees that also included Dante, another White Guelf. Neither Petrarch’s parents nor Dante would ever return.

He was born in 1304 in Arezzo. His birthplace would have been Florence, but his parents were of the White faction when the Black Guelfs took over in the city. They had to flee, amid a group of refugees that also included Dante, another White Guelf. Neither

Petrarch’s father was a notary by profession, and this made it natural for his son to train for a career in a similar law-related field. But Petrarch hated his legal education. While supposedly studying hard, in Montpellier and then in Bologna, he put much of his energy into collecting books instead. This was long before printing technology; the only way to get reading matter was to find manuscripts to buy, beg, borrow, or transcribe—all of which he did eagerly

A setback occurred when his father threw his first modest collection into the fire, presumably in the hope that it would help the young man concentrate on law. At the last moment, however, he relented and pulled just two books from the flames. They were Cicero on rhetoric, which might be useful for a legal career anyway, and a volume of Virgil’s poetry, which Petrarch was allowed to keep for recreation. Both authors always remained stars in Petrarch’s sky. They would continue to be revered by later humanists: Virgil with his poetic beauty and reinvention of classical legend, Cicero with his thoughts on morality and politics, and his outstandingly elegant Latin prose.

For the moment, Petrarch kept his head down—in both the studious and the discreet sense—but when he was twenty-two and his father died, he gave up law and returned to Avignon to start a totally different way of life: the literary one. He began a pattern that he would follow for all his career: working in the entourages of a series of powerful patrons, in exchange for financial security and often a nice house (or two) to live in. The patrons might be noblemen, or territorial princes, or officials of the church; to prepare for the latter, he took minor orders himself as a churchman. His jobs involved some diplomatic services and secretarial labor, but most important, they meant producing a stream of pleasing, flattering, stimulating, or comforting compositions. The main task was doing what Petrarch loved anyway: reading and writing.

And, boy, did he write. He poured out treatises, dialogues, and personal narratives; mini-biographies and triumphal celebrations and Latin poems and consolatory reflections and blistering invectives. To please himself as well as others, he wrote beautiful love poetry in the vernacular, developing and perfecting his own version of the sonnet form (still called the Petrarchan sonnet today). Many of these verses were in honor of an idealized woman whom he called “Laura,” and whom he said he had first seen at a church in Avignon on April 6, 1327—a date he recorded in the precious pages of a Virgil manuscript. His delirious agonizing over how unattainable and elusive she was would inspire generations of poets after him.

In between his obligations to patrons in cities, Petrarch often found himself rewarded for his work with the chance to live in attractive houses in the countryside. These interludes fed his inspiration further, as he spent periods of creative leisure wandering in woods and on riverside paths, socializing with friends, or just cohabiting with his beloved books. During his mid-thirties, he had a house in the village of Vaucluse, by the clear water of the stream of the Sorgue, not far from Avignon. Later retreats included a house in the Euganean Hills near Padua, and before that, a house at Garegnano near Milan, by another river, where he could listen to “multicoloured birds in their branches sing in various modes,” and also do botanical experiments by planting different varieties of laurel bushes in the garden.

It must be said that Petrarch was never a stranger to vanity, and sometimes drifted into pomposity. He always claimed to despise his own fame and to be exhausted by the many admirers who came to his door (or doors). But it is clear that he loved it, really. He grew into the full height of his role—and that was a considerable height, literally as well as metaphorically. A later description by Giannozzo Manetti, based on reports by those who knew him, described Petrarch as being tall and having a “majesty” about him.

Despite this elevated air, he also carried a lifelong psychological mark from his insecure beginning. Alongside the moments of self-satisfaction, he would have others: episodes of depression, or accidia, an inability to feel anything at all, even unhappiness. At times, everything seemed unknowable and uncertain to him: in his fifties, he would describe himself in a letter as “granting myself nothing, affirming nothing, doubting all but what I consider a sacrilege to doubt.”

When not thinking of the past, he wove his life and writings deeply into the lives of his contemporaries. He developed a vast circle of interesting friends: educated men, of a literary bent themselves, sometimes rich and powerful. He circulated his works among them—so his writings were read by others besides the patrons to whom they were dedicated. This circle also became Petrarch’s useful network of fellow book finders. Each time his friends went anywhere, he gave them shopping lists. Sending one such list to Giovanni dell’Incisa, the prior of San Marco in Florence, Petrarch asked him to show it to everyone he knew in Tuscany: “Let them roll out the closets and chests of their church people and other men of letters in case something might emerge that might be suitable to soothe or irritate my thirst.” Manuscripts, laboriously copied or precariously lent, made their way around the Italian peninsula on dangerous roads filled with robbers; if loaned, they also had to find their way back. Petrarch himself was often on the move, for his work duties as well as social calls, and wherever he went, he would halt if he saw a monastery in the distance: “Who knows if there is something I want here?” He would go in and ask to rummage. If he found a text of value, he sometimes stayed for days or weeks to make his own copy of it.

Imagine what that was like: having to copy, by hand, every word of every book you add to your collection. Even Petrarch found it exhausting. In a letter, he describes writing out a long Cicero text that a friend had lent him, and going slowly so that he could also try to memorize it as he went. His hand became stiff and sore. But just as he thought he could hardly go on, he came to a passage where Cicero himself mentioned having copied someone’s orations. Petrarch felt chastened: “I blushed as though an embarrassed soldier being chided by a respected commander.” If Cicero could do it, so could he.

At other times, Petrarch found comfort rather than exhaustion in the act of writing. It was almost an addiction. “Except when writing, I am always tormented and sluggish,” he admitted. One friend who saw him working over-hard on an epic poem tried what we might call an “intervention.” He asked Petrarch innocently for the key to his cabinet. Once he had it, he grabbed Petrarch’s books and writing materials, threw them inside, turned the key, and left. The next day, Petrarch had a headache from morning to evening, and the day after that he developed a fever. The friend gave him back the key.

Often, Petrarch did more than mechanical copying. Besides trying to remember what he read, he also applied his own growing scholarship to each new discovery. He pioneered the art of sensitive editing, using fresh manuscript finds to build up fuller versions of ancient texts that had previously existed only in fragments, doing his best to fit them together correctly. His most important production of this kind was an edition of Livy, a historian of Rome whose huge work survived only in parts. (It is still incomplete, but we have more of it now than in Petrarch’s time.) Having found several new sections in different manuscript forms, he assembled them in a volume together with his copies of other existing parts. The resulting book would belong to a great scholar of the next century, Lorenzo Valla (whom we will meet properly later on); Valla added more notes of his own, improving it further. This was exactly what generations of humanists would continue to love doing—enlarging knowledge, using the evidence to make texts richer and more accurate. It was Petrarch who led the way.

The writers he investigated often provided encouragement for such work, and even direct inspiration for his own writing. A particularly energizing discovery was one of his earliest: that of Cicero’s oration Pro Archia. Delivered in Rome in the year 62 BCE, it was a defense of the poet Archias, who as an immigrant was about to be denied citizenship of the city on a technicality. Cicero’s argument was that the “human and literary studies” promoted by Archias contributed such pleasure and moral benefit to Roman society that, technicality or no, he ought to be given his citizenship anyway. Petrarch found the full text of this in a monastery in Liège, while traveling through the area with friends. They all had to wait for several days while he made himself a copy to take away. It was the perfect text for someone who was embarking on a life of literature: it meant that Cicero approved of such a life.

Another collector with a fine library, also of about eight hundred books, was Niccolò Niccoli. A generation younger than Coluccio, and still a child when Petrarch and Boccaccio died, Niccolò grew up to become the librarian to Cosimo de’ Medici—whose family, having made a fortune by banking and trade, used part of that wealth to support scholars and artists. One of Niccolò’s executive decisions was to dig out the books of Boccaccio from their neglectful storage in Santo Spirito and make them more available. He also left his own books to the Medici collections, on condition that they be accessible to anyone who wanted to see or even borrow them. The Medici books became the foundation of Florence’s two main libraries today, the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana and the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale.

Like Boccaccio, Niccolò was the son of a merchant and had gone through the same life-changing process of rejecting that line of work in favor of a literary and scholarly career. He delighted in both pleasures and treasures, and lived surrounded by his hoard of sculptures, mosaics, and pottery, as well as manuscripts. He did not marry and lived alone except for servants, but in company he was scintillating, according to the memoirs of book dealer Vespasiano da Bisticci, a valuable source on many humanists of the time. “Whenever he joined a discussion of learned men, which he often did for relaxation, his funny stories and mordant raillery (for he naturally overflowed with comic jests) would make all his listeners laugh continuously,” wrote Vespasiano. Giannozzo Manetti wrote a biography, too, and noted how Niccolò “enhanced his natural good looks with fine, plum-colored garments.” He encouraged groups of young scholars to come to his house to read his books, and then to put the books down and discuss whatever they had learned from them.

While working for the Roman contingent during that time, Poggio and his friends explored monasteries in a large area around Constance. Petrarch would have envied them their finds. At Cluny Abbey, they came upon more Cicero speeches. At St. Gall, they found several works, including a good text of Vitruvius’s treatise on architecture, and something especially desirable: the first complete text of Quintilian’s Institutes of Oratory—that bible of rhetorical technique, with its argument that to be an orator one must be a virtuous person. Then, probably in Fulda, Poggio and his friend Bartolomeo da Montepulciano found Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things, the long poem transmitting the Epicurean and Democritan theory of atoms and skepticism about the gods. Fragments had been mentioned by other authors, so it was known to exist, but it was assumed to be lost in its full form. Poggio sent it to Niccolò, who was so entranced by it that his usual openness failed him. He kept it to himself for ten years before letting anyone else, even Poggio, spend time with it.

It was during this time in Rome that Poggio wrote a book of quips and anecdotes, Facetiae: a highly humanistic amusement full of double entendres, as in the story of the messenger who asks a woman if she wishes to send a note to her husband, who is away from home. “How can I write,” she replies, “when my husband has taken his pen away with him, and left my inkwell empty?” The book circulated widely and was printed long after Poggio’s death in many editions—the first published joke book.

In their copying and writing, Coluccio, Niccolò, Poggio, and others developed a new style of handwriting to reflect their new spirit. Known as the “humanistic hand,” it was based on writing that they thought was from antiquity, though in fact it was none other than the minuscule first developed by Charlemagne’s scribes. Simple and easier to read than the usual medieval hand, it was perfect for readers who could set their own pace and get through many books, rather than having to recite texts aloud, with slow care, at a lectern. The humanists dismissed the more elaborate style as “Gothic,” an insult implying “barbarian”—as in the hordes of Goths and Vandals who had brought Rome to its earlier downfall. Their own rival style said everything about how they saw themselves: reviving old simplicity, sweeping away clutter, and ushering knowledge into the light.

And yet some humanist women did make their mark. An outstanding early example was the first known female professional writer, Christine de Pizan. Born in Venice in 1364, she spent most of her life in France, apparently acquiring from her physician father a reasonable education in Italian and French, and possibly also Latin. She married at fifteen and had three children. The course of her life changed when both her husband and her father died, leaving her with the responsibility of supporting herself, her children, and her mother. To do this, she turned to writing, producing works for the king and others in exchange for financial patronage. Her versatility was impressive: in addition to works on ethics, education, politics, and war—all considered masculine subjects—she wrote love poetry and some verses recounting episodes of her own life, illustrating one of Petrarch’s favorite themes: The Mutability of Fortune. In 1405, she wrote The Book of the City of Ladies, a collection of stories drawing on a work by Boccaccio about women in myth and history, but adding a rousing defense of women’s general skills and moral excellence. Much of the defense is spoken by the voice of Reason, who, as in the positive half of Petrarch’s Remedies for Fortune Fair and Foul, provides cheering thoughts to offset gloom. When the narrator becomes depressed by reading the many misogynistic things men have written about women, Reason cheers her. She suggests asking the question: Have these men never been wrong about anything? Clearly they have, since they so often contradict or correct one another and cannot all have been right. “Let me tell you,” she says, “that those who speak ill of women do more harm to themselves than they do to the women they actually slander.” She advises the narrator to build a “City of Ladies” in her mind and fill it with all the examples she can discover of scholarly, brave, and inspiring women. This is a different sort of rescue task: deploying forgotten figures to cheer the living.

To one pupil, Leonello d’Este, Guarino wrote in praise of the pleasures of reading books outdoors, perhaps in a boat on the river. He described gliding, book open on his knees, past vineyards and fields full of singing farmers. But reading in an indoor library could be almost as delightful. A dialogue by another author features a scene of Guarino advising Leonello on how to decorate such a library: besides books, one could add roses, sprigs of rosemary, a sundial, a lyre, and pictures of gods and scholars. Best not to include kittens or caged birds, however; their antics are too distracting.

Imagining this ideal library brings to mind another such setting: the magnificent palace of Urbino, a little farther down the Italian peninsula. The duke there, Federico da Montefeltro, began as one of Vittorino’s pupils in Mantua. He then made his fortune as a condottiere, or mercenary soldier, and from 1454 put that fortune into building a dream palace, high on a hill, with perfectly proportioned architecture and an internal decor that sang of the humanities and humanity. In his private study were beautiful images, in colored woods, of admired writers (Homer, Virgil, Cicero, Seneca, Tacitus), and of musical instruments, classical temples, parrots, and his pet squirrel—not too distracting, since in wooden form they couldn’t leap around. His full library filled two halls, adorned with frescoes of the Arts and Sciences and a Latin inscription saying, of his book collection: “In this house you have wealth, golden bowls, abundance of money, crowds of servants, sparkling gems, rich jewels, precious chains and girdles. But here is a treasure that far outshines all these splendours.” The supplier of most of the contents was Vespasiano da Bisticci, who reportedly kept thirty-four copyists permanently busy just making manuscripts for the duke of Urbino. All, of course, were written in the clear humanist hand.

Like most inventions that improve human life, the printing press met with skepticism and resistance. The duke of Urbino wanted nothing to do with such books. A German Benedictine abbot, Johannes Trithemius, wrote In Praise of Scribes, arguing that manuscripts were better than printed books and that scribing was too useful a spiritual exercise for monks to give up. Then, in order to reach as wide an audience as possible, he had the book printed.

The abbot also argued that parchment was a more durable substance than paper, and this was true—although knicker-based paper has survived beautifully compared with wood-pulp paperbacks of the 1970s. Nonetheless, for making literary works survive, printing surely beats manuscript-copying, since so many copies can be made and distributed. One just has to think of Boccaccio sending the precious pages of the Homer translation back and forth to Petrarch, or Poggio being unable to get Lucretius back from Niccolò for ten years. True, many printed books have been lost from the world, too, but on the whole, books have a better chance than manuscripts. Early printing is a prime example of technical ingenuity working in harmony with cultural knowledge to produce something of lasting value. As Edward Gibbon wrote, from this group of German mechanical workers came “an art which derides the havock of time and barbarism.”

Showing off its author’s inquiring mind, along with his immersion in classical sources and literary technique, De Aetna is also a perfect quiet marriage of printed format to content. It amounts to a demonstration of something remarked upon by the twentieth-century literary historian Ernst Robert Curtius: that the true humanistic temperament “delights simultaneously in the world and in the book.”

Many Greek scholars had moved to Italian cities to teach, including one particular influx following an event that shocked Christians everywhere: the Turkish conquest of Constantinople in 1453. Refugees fled, but often had time to grab their book collections, filled with Greek works on philosophy, mathematics, engineering, and more. All this enhanced Italy’s cultural, intellectual, and technical range and fed the circle around Aldus. He knew Greek himself, printed books in Greek, and hosted meetups with rules stating that anyone accidentally slipping up and forgetting to speak Greek must put a coin into a pot. Each time it filled up, Aldus used the money to throw a party.

Petrarch did leave an affectionate gift to Boccaccio in his will: ‘fifty Florentine gold florins for a winter garment to be worn by him while he is studying and working during the night hours’.

Coluccio was also a great collector, with a library of some eight hundred books, enhanced by his own marginal notes and amendments. He lent them to interested readers, and eventually they went to the monastery of San Marco in Florence. He also advanced the study of Greek in Florence, by inviting the scholar Manuel Chrysoloras from Constantinople to teach it - beginning a great flourishing of Greek studies in Italy and putting Petrarch’s and Boccaccio’s struggles with the language firmly in the past.

In truth, you didn’t need classical literature to learn vices: according to a dialogue on hypocrisy by Poggio, one preacher often provided so much detail in his sermons against lust that the congregation rushed home afterwards to try out the practices for themselves.

Meanwhile, one also has to ask: could such a multi-sided, selfdetermining, free, harmonious marvel ever actually exist? How many human chameleons were walking around Florence?

Certainly, if you hoped to find one, Florence was a good place to look. Candidates for models of all-capable humanity who might often be found there included Leonardo da Vinci, the versatile artistic and scientific genius, and the architect Leon Battista Alberti. Those were in fact the two names chosen by the nineteenth-century historian Jacob Burckhardt when he was looking for exemplars of what he considered the era’s distinctive figure: the uomo universale, or ‘universal man’, who could take on any form and achieve almost anything in a fluid, constantly changing society.

Leon Battista Alberti seems an apt choice, too, especially if we read a glowing contemporary account of his achievements written by an anonymous we are now fairly certain was none other than Alberti himself. It portrays him, not without justification, as a man of innumerable facets, capable in every field of life, excelling in every quality except modesty.

He did have a lot to be immodest about. Besides designing buildings and producing pictures, he wrote important treatises on the arts of painting, building, and sculpture. He was an expert surveyor and devised new techniques to produce a study of Rome’s ruins. He wrote Latin theatrical comedy about Greek gods, and a book titled Mathematical Games. Each of his fields of expertise enhanced the others, as when he used his mathematical talents to work out rules for creating the illusion of perspective in visual art.

Those achievements are well documented, but the biography goes further. Alberti wrestled, he sang, he pole-vaulted, he climbed mountains. In youth, he was strong enough to throw an apple over the top of a church and to jump over a man’s back from a standing start. He was so resistant to pain that, when he wounded his foot at the age of fifteen, he could calmly help a surgeon to stitch it closed.

He cultivated subtler abilities too. By going bareheaded on horseback (an unusual thing to do), he trained himself to endure chills on his head, even in the fierce winds of winter. Applying the same principle to the cold winds of social life, he ‘deliberately exposed himself to shameless impudence just to teach himself patience’. He loved talking to everyone he could find, seeking new knowledge. He would invite friends over so that they could talk about literature and philosophy, and to these friends he would also dictate little works while he painted their portrait or made a wax model of one of them’. In every situation, he sought to behave virtuously; ‘he wanted everything in his life, every gesture and every word, to be, as well as to seem to be, the expression of one who merits the good will of good men.’ At the same time, he valued sprezzatura, adding art to art to make the result seem free of artifice', especially when it came to three important activities: ‘how one walks in the street, how one rides, and how one speaks; in these things one should make every effort to be intensely pleasing to all.’ Throughout all of this, he ‘kept a cheerful manner and even, insofar as dignity permitted, an air of gaiety’.

Alberti was thus the very model of the splendid, accomplished, free human being in the full sunlight of his days. True, he was exceptionally able. But what is being conjured up here is more than that; it is an ideal figure of the human in general. All the qualities highlighted are those of humanitas: intellectual and artistic excellence, moral virtue and fortitude, sociability, good speaking, sprezzatura, being courteously pleasing to all'. Along with this comes his excellent physical condition: the mental abilities were reflected in his physical proportions. Reading his description, one pictures another figure of the time: that of ‘Vitruvian Man’.

Vitruvian Man was a perfectly proportioned, steady-gazing, wellformed male figure, whose origin is purely mathematical. He illustrates the ratios of distance that were supposed to exist between parts of the human body: the chin to the roots of the hair, the wrist to the tip of the middle finger, the chest to the crown of the head, and so on. Calculating these ratios in the first century BCE, Vitruvius was interested not so much in anatomical design as in architecture: these proportions of the male body seemed to him the best basis for the shape of a temple. Thus, the human being – as Protagoras would have said - should literally be taken as the measure, or criterion. Vitruvius gave the method for deriving the data. If a man lies on his back with hands and feet spread, and you draw a circle with his navel as the centre, the circumference will touch his fingers and toes. You can also create a square based on the span of his arms and the length of his body, when he brings his feet together.

Artists of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries did their best to make this Vitruvian ideal come true. Even designers of printing fonts modelled their letters on the Vitruvian body. Michelangelo Buonarroti followed the temple theme by designing a facade for the San Lorenzo church in Florence based on such dimensions - although he never built it, because he could not source the marble he wanted.

Most celebrated was the drawing made around 1490 by Leonardo da Vinci, showing a man in the two positions simultaneously, along with his measures in delicate box shapes. The man is positioned inside a circle centring on his navel, as well as a square. His expression is frowning but serene; he has a fine head of hair, and turns one foot sideways to show how its dimensions fit with the whole. He is perfect - apart from having too many arms and legs.

Leonardo’s original drawing sits well guarded in the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice, but the disembodied image has traversed a huge sweep of history and geography, representing human confidence, beauty, harmony and strength. It has become an instant icon for the idea of the ‘Renaissance’, and of ‘universal man’; a visual companion to Pico’s dignified chameleon. Even the international symbol for the modern humanist movement echoes it: the ‘Happy Human’ image, designed by Dennis Barrington in 1965, shows a human shape with arms flung up in a similar way, full of confidence, openness and well-being. (Interestingly, Humanists UK has now moved away from this towards a more fluid symbol resembling a dancing piece of string - chosen because it is a figure following its own motion instead of standing before us to be measured. You can see this symbol at the end of the last chapter of this book, at page 368.)

In fact, what distinguishes the Leonardo image from other Vitruvian ones is that it does not submit to symmetrical measurements; its shapes are not concentric. Leonardo achieved the figure’s visual beauty and plausibility by displacing the square downwards. The circle centres on the navel, but the square centres somewhere around the base of the man’s penis. Also, the upper tips of the square poke through the circle’s radius. The proportions had to be tweaked, because even ‘ideal’ humans are not a precise set of boxes and circles. Many correspondences do exist: the finger-to-finger span of a broad-shouldered man is likely to be more or less the same as his height. But without adjustment, a real Vitruvian man would look mighty weird, as is clear from some other examples, such as the one in a 1521 Italian translation of Vitruvius illustrated by Cesare Cesariano.

The message here is that real human beings, even those who match the dominant template of muscular masculinity, are characterised by something less than perfect harmony. They are subtly off-centre. An ideal, harmonious human cannot be found any more than an ideal, harmonious city can (or even a harmonious chameleon). Immanuel Kant was surely closer to the truth when he wrote, three centuries later: ‘Out of such crooked wood as the human being is made, nothing entirely straight can be fabricated.

At last, in 1543, Vesalius produced his masterwork: De humani corporis fabrica, or of the Structure of the Human Body, in which he repudiated the notion of a human rete for once and for all. He blamed both himself and other anatomists for having been too Galen-reliant: ‘I shall say nothing more about these others; instead I shall marvel more at my own stupidity and blind faith in the writings of Galen and other anatomists.’ He ends the section by urging students to rely on their own careful examinations, taking no one’s word for anything, not even his own.

This was a good warning, since Vesalius himself did not get everything right. One error was that he failed to identify the clitoris correctly, misdescribing it as part of the labia. It took another Padua anatomist, Realdo Colombo, to correct him. Realdo even knew what it was for, which implies that he had noticed it in contexts other than the dissection table. He named it ‘amor Veneris, vel dulcendo’ (‘love of Venus, or thing of pleasure’), gave details of its role in women’s sexual experiences, and remarked, ‘It cannot be said how astonished I am that so many famous anatomists had not even an inkling of such a lovely thing, perfected with such art for the sake of such utility

d’Holbach himself seemed a good example of this liberating effect: he was an irrepressible enthusiast who kept a large collection of natural history specimens for his daytime studies and an equally large collection of fine wines and foods for his evening salon, at which he entertained fellow lumières twice weekly. Among the whole group, he and Diderot were known as the two greatest atheists, although Diderot was more cautious about going fully public.

The humanistic thrust of these ideas had less to do with their theoretical content than with the consequences for ourselves. If prayer and ritual do not matter, and if nothing happens outside the general order of nature, then our lives are entirely human concerns. What we lose in personal attention and miracles, we gain in the benefits of being responsible for our world, and able to improve things if we want to without any comment from above.

The results for ethics are dramatic. If we want to live in a wellregulated, peaceful society, then we must create one and maintain it. Instead of referring moral questions to divine commandments, we must also work out our own system of good, generous, mutually beneficial ethics. We can try to generate our own rules - such as ‘do as you would be done by’, or ‘treat all human beings as an end in themselves, not a means to something else’, or ‘choose the action that brings the greatest happiness to the greatest number. These are handy tools for moral thinking, but they are not the same as a set of orders literally set in stone tablets by God. Our moral lives remain complex and personal - and human.

In 1819, Richard Carlile was tried for publishing both his own experiences of the Peterloo Massacre (a lethal cavalry attack on protesters at Manchester’s St Peter’s Fields) and Paine’s Age of Reason. To defy the rules on the latter, Carlile tried a clever courtroom trick. He recited the work in its entirety in court as part of his defence, on the basis that it was important for understanding the principles of the case. The plan was that, afterwards, everything said at the trial could be legally published as a transcript the full text of The Age of Reason included. Had that succeeded, it would have gone down in humanist history as one of the best feats of censorship beating ever, but sadly, it did not; no transcript ever appeared.

He (David Hume) had become so easy-going - and had also become that ‘large jolly man’ - after having put himself through a sort of therapy to counter too much futile battling with philosophy in his youth. Having cudgelled his brains with unresolvable philosophical puzzles, he fell into a wan state and wrote to a doctor asking for advice. The doctor suggested dropping the philosophy and drinking a pint of claret a day, combined with some gentle horse-riding. Hume tried it and soon became, as he wrote, ‘the most sturdy, robust, healthful-like fellow you have seen, with a ruddy complexion and a cheerful countenance’.

David Hume resembled Montaigne in other respects too, notably in his striking combination of the toughest intellectual scepticism with tolerant good humour. One can hear Montaigne’s voice, for example, when Hume tells us, at the end of the devastating first book of the Treatise, that its contents have taken him to such a strange place that he now feels like a monster (‘Where am I, or what? From what causes do I derive my existence, and to what condition shall I return? Whose favour shall I court, and whose anger must I dread? What beings surround me?') - only to then conclude that there is no cause for concern. Reason may not be able to help him, but Nature promptly cures him of his ‘melancholy and delirium’ by distracting him with the everyday enjoyments of life. ‘I dine, I play a game of back-gammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends.’

John Stuart Mill, in The Subjection of Women, wrote that we simply cannot know what either sex is ‘really’ like, because there has never been a society in which women were not influenced by male domination. This distorts women, like hothouse plants made to grow into a particular shape or size. (It distorts men, too.) Meanwhile ‘men, with that inability to recognise their own work which distinguishes the unanalytic mind, indolently believe that the tree grows of itself in the way they have made it grow.’

Yet the amount of thinking required should not be that demanding. The great abolitionist and autobiographer Frederick Douglass put the point with memorable force and clarity in a Fourth of July oration of 1852, saying: “There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven, that does not know that slavery is wrong for him.’ That single line destroys whole volumes of faulty argument - beginning with Aristotle.

As Frederick Douglass puts it elsewhere, in My Bondage and My Freedom, nothing in the human world is the way it is by necessity or by nature. He applies this even to brutal slaveholders, who, he suggests, could have been humane and respectable had their lives had a different context. On a moral and human level, the institution of slavery had destroyed them, too: “The slaveholder, as well as the slave, is the victim of the slave system.’ As we saw earlier, Archbishop Desmond Tutu would later say something similar about South African apartheid, and James Baldwin said it too in 1960: ‘It is a terrible, an inexorable, law that one cannot deny the humanity of another without diminishing one’s own.” In general, wrote Douglass, ‘a man’s character greatly takes its hue and shape from the form and color of things about him’.

The idea for the book had come to him two years earlier when he visited the author Edward Carpenter, who - amazingly - lived openly with his partner, George Merrill. Sharing a home in an idyllic forest setting, they were countercultural vegetarians who chopped their own wood and, in Carpenter’s case, wrote books. These books presented the case for women’s rights, better education in matters of sexuality, and more acceptance of sexual diversity. In Love’s Coming-of-Age, published in 1896 (thus, while Oscar Wilde was still in prison), Carpenter argued for a richer, less fragmented understanding of human life, which would integrate the sexual part of our existence with the rest, rather than treating it as something never to be mentioned. For Carpenter, that exclusion impoverished life. It entailed a ‘thinning out of human nature’. It would be much better if sexuality were a subject taught in schools, not just to give information on physical basics, but especially to discuss the more important ‘human element in love’.

Carpenter and Merrill welcomed visitors to their happy forest glade, although with exceptions. One door-to-door missionary who asked if they did not want to get to heaven was banished by Merrill with the answer ‘Can’t you see that we’re in heaven here - and we don’t want any better than this, so go away’.

Wilhelm von Humboldt:

“The more in life one searches for, and finds, human beings, the richer, more self-sufficient, more independent one becomes oneself. More humanized, more readily touched by all that is human in all the facets of one’s nature, and in all aspects of creation. This is the goal, dear Li, to which my nature urges me. This is what I live and breathe. Here for me is the final key to all desire… Who, when he dies, can tell himself, ‘I have comprehended as much world as I am able, and have transformed it into my humanness,’ has fulfilled his aim.”

Arnoldian thinking does have a certain air of earnestness, which was carried forth during its long afterlife of influence in Britain and elsewhere. It was a force behind the foundation, in the twentieth century, of the British Broadcasting Corporation, which aimed at enlightening and informing as well as entertaining the masses. It lay at the centre of countless institutions of adult education founded earlier in that century, such as the Workers’ Educational Association, established in 1903.

It also had an impact on the publishing industry, which had a very Arnoldian phase in America and Britain alike. Sets of ‘Great Books’ could be good earners for publishers, since Shakespeare and Milton required no royalty payments. Even translations could work well, despite the need for translators. One early series, Bohn’s Standard Library, published many Greek and Roman classics in English, although it did frustrate readers by leaving any lines referring to sex in their original languages.

Then came such outstanding productions as Dr Eliot’s Five-Foot Shelf of Books, the name bestowed on the fifty-one-volume set of literature edited in 1909 by Charles W. Eliot, the president of Harvard University. In Britain there was the Everyman’s Library, founded in 1906 by J. M. Dent, the working-class son of a housepainter. Unfortunately, Dent’s own habit of shouting ‘You donkey!’ at members of his staff on a regular basis suggests that he was not a fan of every man or woman himself. Those employees were, in fact, the secret of the publisher’s success, especially the series editor Ernest Rhys, a coal-mining engineer who had run reading groups for miners before shifting to the book world. He gave the series its ethos: the books must be cheap yet designed to the highest standards. Each sported an attractive woodcut title page and the dolphin-and-anchor printer’s device of Aldus Manutius - a tribute to that pioneer of clear, well-printed, portable books.

To help readers find their way around such abundance, lists of Arnoldian ‘bests’ began to appear, such as the ‘Best Hundred Books’, chosen in 1886 by the director of the Working Men’s College, Sir John Lubbock. Besides the usual Eurocentric choices, he recommended such works as Kongzi’s Analects and potted versions of the Mahabharata and the Rāmāyana. He did admit that he had not personally enjoyed everything on the list: ‘As regards the Apostolic Fathers, I cannot say that I found their writings either very interesting or instructive, but they are also very short.’

Another noted agnostic of the nineteenth century, Sir Leslie Stephen, was more flippant about his reasons for choosing the term: he said he preferred agnostic because atheist still savoured too much of the stake in this world and hell-fire in the next’. But agnostics could carry a whiff of that destination as well: the educational reformer Frederick James Gould recalled once chatting about the afterlife with an amiable Salvation Army officer over tea and sandwiches: ‘I asked him what became of sincere Agnostics. He pointed dramatically to the floor, and calmly munched bread-and-butter and water-cress.

Sir Leslie Stephen was known as the compiler of the very Victorian Dictionary of National Biography; he would also later be remembered as the father of the resolutely non-Victorian experimental novelist Virginia Woolf. He also found time to be a noted mountaineer. One of his Alpine experiences became the basis for an entertaining essay of 1872, A Bad Five Minutes in the Alps’. It sums up his mental tour of possible beliefs, and the conclusions he reached about them, all while telling a literally cliffhanging story.

One Sunday, he says, while staying in one of the mountain resorts there, he went out for a bracing pre-lunch walk. It was windy, and then it started to rain. Trying to return, Stephen took what he thought would be a shortcut. At one point on it, the track seemed to disappear on a stretch of rock face above a torrential stream, before resuming visibly on the other side. He decided to risk it and started scrambling across. At first it was easy, but as he took a large step and reached for an outcrop above him to steady himself, he slipped. As he slid down towards the stream far below, he had time for just one thought, and it was, ‘At last!’ He had feared and wondered about death for so long; now it was upon him.

But he flung out a hand just in time and managed to grab the ledge his feet had been on, stopping his fall. Then he managed to get the tip of his right foot onto another jutting rock, for more support, but he could neither pull nor push himself any further up. He hung there, by a hand and a foot - and they were already beginning to tire. It seemed that he would have about twenty minutes before his strength gave way. There was no point in shouting, as no one would hear, and it would weaken him faster. He imagined his fellow guests entering the dining room, sitting down and joking about his absence. By the time anyone became worried enough to come look for him, he would be rolling down the stream as ‘a ghastly mass’.

Since he appeared to be doomed, Stephen applied himself to seeking a suitable state of mind for dying in. But none of what he had been taught about this solemn process seemed to work. His mind wandered; mainly he just felt annoyed at himself for making such a mistake. He reminded himself that he had about a quarter of an hour to answer the questions of life: what is the universe? What part should we play in it?

All the religions and denominations he had come across - Protestantism, Catholicism, Pantheism - pointed in different directions. He ran through them in his mind, one by one, and had a terrible thought: what if they were all true and he was supposed to believe in all of them at once, but had accidentally failed to believe in one single clause in, say, the Athanasian Creed? God would greet him by saying: sorry, you have been good and kind, but you forgot that clause and must now go to Hell.

Fortunately, Stephen reflected, such uncompromising rules were now out of fashion, like other old ideas, such as the view that human life was vile and despicable. But too much Panglossian positivity seemed wrong too. Did it even matter? Was Leslie Stephen a mere grain of dust in the universe, about to be thrown aside with indifference? He knew that the atoms of his flesh would be dispersed through the stream and would recombine to form other things: the Epicurean view. But it was hard to feel much personal involvement in this. Nor could he find comfort in the thought that a general shared ‘humanity’, of which he had been a part, would go on without him. Still, he craved ‘something like a blessing to soothe the parting moment some sense of sanctification’.

Thinking this, he found a memory arising of a time when he was taking part in a boat race on the Thames, and his boat was well behind the others. As they neared the finish line, it was obvious that he could not win. Yet he continued to row as hard as ever, out of an obscure sense that it was his ‘duty’ to try his very best. Now, hanging on the rock, he had the same feeling. The game was up, yet he must cling on until the last moment, resisting. This gave him a moral foundation of sorts: one that required no God, nor even any sense of meaning in the universe. It was his own human need to do his duty.

The Victorians had a great feeling for ‘duty’ as something almost transcendental. George Eliot held it in high regard too: one day, out strolling with a companion, she remarked that out of the three words ‘God, Immortality, Duty’, she considered the first inconceivable and the second unbelievable, but the third was ‘peremptory and absolute’. Darwin also wrote of the ‘deep feeling of right or duty’ as the ‘most noble of all the attributes of man’ (and, as with moral attributes in general, he speculated about its origins in the social group). Leslie Stephen himself seems to have been thinking of something similar when he noted, some years earlier and à propos his loss of faith: ‘I now believe in nothing, but I do not the less believe in morality.’ He added, ‘I mean to live and die like a gentleman if possible.’

Today, many of us feel strongly about duty, but it is more likely to be in the context of a specific situation, perhaps in relation to the needs of family or work. To the Victorians, it was almost an entity in itself. Yet it was essentially humanistic: it needed no God to guarantee it but emerged from our own moral nature. It was a human-centred wish to do the right thing, not just by each other, but by our own lives our own humanity.

The ending to the Alpine story (as one might guess from the author’s being alive to tell it) was a happy one. Having had his epiphany about duty, Stephen noticed that he might just be able to reach for another handhold if he lunged for it. It would mean taking a swing and abandoning his existing handhold. Still, he had nothing to lose. He reached missed - and began sliding downwards. But almost immediately, he came to a halt. It turned out that another ledge had been there all the time, just below him; it supported him more firmly, and he could step back onto the path again from there. Looking at his watch, he saw that the whole drama had taken five minutes a bad five minutes in the Alps - and that he would be in time for lunch.

At the end of the story, Leslie Stephen hints that it was just story.

Another option, for those who preferred their religion even more humanised, was to set up humanity itself in the place of God or Jesus and worship that instead.

There were precedents for this too. In France, just after the Revolution, a secular ‘religion’ had briefly held sway, designed to replace the Catholic religion, which the revolutionaries hoped to eradicate. They began by ransacking the churches. They even briefly considered demolishing huge cathedrals, such as the one at Chartres, until an architect pointed out that the rubble of such a building would block the whole of the town centre for years. But they were also aware that people might need a substitute, so they set up personifications such as Reason, Liberty, or Humanity as a focus for devotion. The altar at Paris’s Notre-Dame was replaced by one dedicated to Liberty, and the building hosted a Festival of Reason on 10 November, 1793. This included a parade by the Goddess of Reason, played by Sophie Momoro, wife of the organiser AntoineFrançois Momoro. The year after that, the religions of humanity and reason fell out of favour with Maximilien Robespierre, who showed his disapproval by having Antoine-François Momoro and others guillotined, and then introducing his own, more deistic Cult of the Supreme Being instead. That continued until 1801, when Napoleon banned that too and brought back more conventional religious practices.

The idea of venerating abstractions of this sort lived on. In Germany, the philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach suggested following a human religion in his 1841 book The Essence of Christianity (another work that would be translated into English by George Eliot). Feuerbach thought that mono theistic religion had anyway resulted from humans’ choosing their own best qualities, naming those qualities ‘God’, and worshipping them. So one might as well cut out the middlegod and worship Humanity directly, or at least our moral side. Feuerbach did not attempt to organise such a religion, but others did, notably the French thinker Auguste Comte.

Comte had some excellent ideas: he founded the discipline of sociology and coined the term positivism to describe his belief that our lives could be better governed if they were based on empirical (that is, ‘positive’) science. His scientific worldview led him to reject traditional religion, but his sociology told him that people seemed to need something ritualistic in their lives to replace it. He therefore designed what became known as the Positivist religion, or the Religion of Humanity. It was dedicated to an abstraction, but there was nothing abstract about its practices.

First, being a Catholic by upbringing, Comte was certain that this religion would need an idealised feminine figure to replace the Virgin Mary. He found such a figure in a woman with whom he happened to be personally fascinated: Clotilde de Vaux. After a life unhappily married to a man who abandoned her, she died young, all of which made her the perfect symbol of gentle, anguished female virtue. In the Religion of Humanity, she loomed larger than humanity itself, it sometimes seems. But for living women, Comte’s religion had less to offer: they were expected to devote themselves exclusively to bringing up children.

Then there had to be saints, to replace the Catholic ones. Comte chose a range of artists, writers, scientists, and even some religious thinkers who had shown outstanding human qualities, such as Moses. He an idea borrowed from the named the months of the year after them Revolutionary calendar. And of course, there must be a pope at the head of it all. He seemed prepared to consider himself for this role, but had no time to make it official before he died, in 1857.

After this, the Positivist religion snowballed away and found followers in countries around the world. It had a lasting success in Brazil, because it was adopted by some of the new republic’s founders after their 1889. They were attracted by the Positivist philosophy of rationalism and its opposition to war and to slavery. A fine Templo da Humanidade was built in Rio de Janeiro, modelled on the Paris Panthéon and featuring a giant painting of Clotilde de Vaux holding a child. Sadly, its roof collapsed in a storm in 2009. Other Positivist churches are still standing in other parts of Brazil.

Another country where Positivists did well was Britain, where so many were already swimming in doubt’s boundless sea. In 1859 - the year that also saw publication of both the Origin of Species and Mill’s On Liberty - Comte’s English translator Richard Congreve opened a London branch of the Religion of Humanity. Meetings were held mostly in his own home at first. A small congregation listened to sermons and recited the Positivist Creed, with lines such as ‘I believe in the coming of the reign of Humanity.’ Congreve even spoke, in one sermon, of Humanity as the ‘Great Power whom we here acknowledge as the Highest'. Music was played; poetry was recited. One popular choice was “The Choir Invisible' by George Eliot, expressing her wish to live on in human memory rather than in a heavenly afterlife. The Positivists set it to music, so it could be sung as a hymn:

O may I join the choir invisible
Of those immortal dead who live again
In minds made better by their presence: live
In pulses stirr’d to generosity,
In deeds of daring rectitude…

George Eliot herself took a deep interest in humanist and secular ideas, as one can tell from her choice of books to translate. But having met some English adherents of the Positivist church, she steered clear of it. Partly this was because of the same difficulty Forster would have with Jesus Christ: she did not personally like its leader. She and Congreve were neighbours, but she felt that his superficial amiability hid a cold heart.

The other great intellectual figures engaged with themes of religion and science at the time were wary, too. John Stuart Mill wrote an exposé ridiculing the Comtist attachment to ritual. He singled out the way Comte made such a cult of femininity while showing no regard for women’s real-life opportunities. T. H. Huxley took one look and summed up the religion as ‘Catholicism minus Christianity’.

In fact, some members of the English church of Humanity also had reservations about the excess of ritual, and the result was that must-have feature of all religions: a schism. The split occurred at a meeting in 1881, with the joke going around that - according to T. R. Wright’s entertaining account The Religion of Humanity - they had come to Church in one cab and left in two'.

The group that departed from Congreve’s was led by Frederic Hargroup rison. He preferred a slightly less elaborate set of imagery and paraphernalia, and thought that ‘mumbling Catholic rites in a sordid hole’ made Positivism look ridiculous. There would still be hymns: his wife, Ethel, edited an anthology of them, including numbers such as ‘Hail to Thee! Hail to Thee! Child of Humanity!’ But they met in a physically brighter location, Newton Hall off Fetter Lane in London, and Harrison’s whole approach was warmer. No one called him cold-hearted; he was exceptionally hearty and humorous. Having seen him out riding one day, Anthony Trollope described him as looking like ‘a jolly butcher on a hippopotamus’. Harrison’s son Austin left a wonderful portrait of him in his memoirs, recalling his father’s hilarious and melodramatic home performances of his favourite author, Shakespeare, continuing until the children had collapsed into too many giggles to go on. He also took on a tutor for them: the hard-up novelist George Gissing, who would enthral them with horror stories from his own very different schooldays, complete with loud ‘Thwack!’ sounds as he recalled the floggings.

“Happiness is the only good. The time to be happy is now. The place to be happy is here. The way to be happy is to make others so.” – Robert G. Ingersoll

At other moments, he (Robert G. Ingersoll) could lay on the melodrama, speaking, for example, of the ‘ghosts’ of religion that dominate history: they have ‘spared no pains to change the eagle of the human intellect into a bat of darkness’, he intoned. But lo, let the spectres now depart! ‘Let them cover their eyeless sockets with their fleshless hands and fade forever from the imaginations of men.’

“Is life worth living? Well, I can only answer for myself. I like to be alive, to breathe the air, to look at the landscape, the clouds, the stars, to repeat old poems, to look at pictures and statues, to hear music, the voices of the ones I love. I enjoy eating and smoking. I like good cold water. I like to talk with my wife, my girls, my grandchildren. I like to sleep and to dream. Yes, you can say life, to me, is worth living.” – Robert G. Ingersoll

“I do believe in the nobility of human nature. I believe in love and home, kindness and humanity. I believe in good fellowship and cheerfulness, in making wife and children happy. I believe in . I believe in free thought, in reason, observation, good nature, and experience. I believe in self-reliance and in expressing your honest thought. I have hope for the whole human race.” – Robert G. Ingersoll

Of his responses to these [letters from the public] I find the one in my mind the most was the letter he (Robert G. Ingersoll) wrote in 1890 to a man that stays who had approached him saying that he had suicidal feelings. Ingersoll advised him: ‘No man should kill himself as long as he can be of the least use to anybody, and if you cannot find some person that you are willing to do something for, find a good dog and take care of him. You have no idea how much better you will feel.’ I hope the man took his advice.

Indeed, Italian Fascism had itself grown from misery. Originating in 1919, the National Fascist Party appealed initially to a cohort of disoriyoung men who had fought in the First World War and then reented turned to find themselves ignored again and abandoned to their poverty. The party restored their sense of belonging and meaning. The very name of Fascism evoked belonging: it came from the Roman symbol of the fasces, or bundle of sticks, which represented the tying together of individuals to create a powerful unity.

In that same year, 1934, Stefan Zweig published a short biography of Erasmus, filled with his admiration for the great humanist, but also ending by asking the question of why the Erasmian values of peace and reason were so hard to maintain. They had fallen apart in Erasmus’s time; they were falling apart now. Why did humanism have this fatal ‘weakness’? Humanists seemed to suffer from a ‘beautiful error’: they allowed themselves to believe that better learning, better reading and better reasoning would be enough to bring about a better world. The world kept proving them wrong.

But what does a humanist do? This was the question over which so many were now puzzling. Do you involve yourself in government and hope to minimise the damage from within? Italians had learned the dangers of that: trying to tone down fascists can merely make you complicit with them. Do you go out on the streets, ready for physical battle? That was not the humanistic way. Do you, then, deplore the rise of barbarism in elegant prose, reminding readers of their humanity in speeches and articles? But most of those who hear the speeches and read the articles probably already agree with you.

Perhaps, if you want to live and you are in danger, you start by emigrating, as Zweig did. The emotional cost of this was so high, however, that by the time he and his wife, Lotte Altmann, reached their third country of refuge, Brazil, they were mentally as well as physically exhausted. Zweig had lost his library and his notes. He continued writing in Brazil without them; among his last works was a biographical essay on Montaigne, presenting him very much as he had Erasmus: as an antiheroic hero in terrible times, who somehow keeps the humanistic spirit going without despair. But Zweig did despair. He and Lotte took their own lives together in Brazil in 1942.

The most obvious aspect in which humans needed to pull themselves together, in the aftermath of the Second World War, concerned nuclear weapons. As Jean-Paul Sartre put it in October 1945, the lesson of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was that, from now on, it would always be up to human beings to decide whether they wanted to survive or not the ultimate existentialist decision.

Another public humanist who phrased the problem in a memorable way was Bertrand Russell. He concluded a 1954 radio broadcast, ‘Man’s Peril’, with a call to make a choice:

“There lies before us, if we choose, continual progress in happiness, knowledge, and wisdom. Shall we, instead, choose death, because we cannot forget our quarrels? I appeal, as a human being to human beings: remember your humanity, and forget the rest. If you can do so, so, the way lies open to a new Paradise; if you cannot, nothing lies before you but universal death.”

‘Remember your humanity, and forget the rest’ – the ‘rest’ being national interests, vanity, pride, prejudice, despair and anything else that gets in the way of choosing to live – became a much-quoted line, not least by Russell himself. He repeated it in another of those international conferences, this one taking place in 1955 and hammering out a manifesto to be signed by concerned scientists, among them Albert Einstein just a few days before his death. The group went on to hold meetings annually, starting in July 1957 in Pugwash, Nova Scotia; thus ‘Pugwash’ remained the name attached to the original manifesto as well as the conferences. They still meet today, and have the same aims: minimising proliferation of weapons and promoting political mechanisms to try to make a catastrophic war less likely.

Bertrand Russell continued to be a stalwart of the anti-nuclear campaign, writing about it and taking part in demonstrations for the rest of his life. After one such occasion in 1961, when he spoke to a crowd in London’s Hyde Park, he was convicted of ‘inciting the public to civil disobedience’ and sentenced to a week in Brixton Prison. He was now eighty-nine years old. The magistrate did try to let him off in exchange for a promise of ‘good behaviour’, but Russell would promise no such thing. Like Voltaire, he became only more fearless and provocative as he went on in life.

Russell worked for many other causes, including environmental ones: he had a prescient sense of the importance of saving the planet’s natural resources and emphasised the urgency of this as early as 1948-1949 in his BBC Reith Lectures. (Around the same time, Julian Huxley organised a UNESCO initiative to create the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which still works with governments and businesses.)

One part of nature almost swallowed Russell up in 1948, before he had a chance to give the Reith Lectures. During a trip that autumn to Trondheim, Norway, he took a flight in the Bukken Bruse, a flying boat’a kind of seaplane that touches down in water directly with its hull, instead of having footlike floats. The weather was bad. Just as the flying boat was about to settle in the water, it was hit by a gust of wind and tipped over sideways. A wing came off, and water flooded into the cabin. Nineteen of the forty-five people on board were killed, including everyone in the non-smoking section towards the front. Most of the smokers, being further back, managed to swim out and were rescued – including Russell, eternal pipe-puffer that he was. He was drenched and had nothing to change into until a kind clergyman lent him a clerical outfit to wear an amusing sight to those who knew Russell’s views on religion. One journalist called from Copenhagen and asked him what he had thought about while in the water. Did he think about mysticism and logic? No, he said. “I thought the water was cold.

Russell’s campaigns, by their nature, were often against things: nuclear weapons, the depredation of nature, and wars - notably in his opposition to US involvement in Vietnam in the late 1960s, by which time he was well into his nineties. His general attitude towards the world, however, was anything but negative. In an autobiographical talk of 1955, ‘Hopes: Realized and Disappointed’, he looked back on his prewar optimistic liberalism, which he admitted had become harder to maintain. Yet he would not give it up: ‘I will not submit my judgments as to what is good and what is bad to the chance arbitrament of the momentary course of events. One must adapt to changes in the world, of course, but it is also a bad thing to assume that whatever is in the ascendant must be right’. In any case, as he always emphasised, it is for us to decide whether our world becomes more happy than otherwise.